Anti-smoking rhetoric is hurting youth prevention messaging around vapes
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For years, anti-tobacco lobbyists have summarily and very aggressively tarred electronic vapour products (EVPs) with the same brush they use to condemn combustible cigarettes, turning an intentional blind eye to the important role that EVPs play in tobacco harm reduction.
This is in spite of the fact that highly reputable agencies such as the Royal College of Physicians and Public Health England have published evidence that EVPs are 95% less harmful than smoking.
Chief executive of the Vapour Products Association of South Africa (VPASA) Asanda Gcoyi said: “This unscientific one-size-fits-all rhetoric by anti-smoking lobbyists has influenced certain governments around the world to pass legislation restricting the marketing and distribution of EVPs under the exact same legislation that applies to normal cigarettes.
“In South Africa, with the debate currently open around the impending Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems Bill (2018), we need to ensure that we do not head the same way.”
Besides the damage this myopic approach does to the adult smoker who is trying desperately to find a less harmful alternative (or, at the very least, cut down) by using vaping devices, it creates highly contradictory misunderstandings around possible underage users.
“What our organisation aims to do,” said Gcoyi, “is to bridge the gap between government and the vapour products industry. To this end, we educate and engage the former, set standards for the latter, and collaborate with both.”
This collaboration is currently specifically aimed at developing legal regulations that will ensure adult consumers continue to enjoy access to vapour products in order to use them for the purpose for which they were invented: as a harm reduction tool that may ultimately enable them to give up smoking altogether.
“This means ensuring that EVPs are recognised for what they are, and the important role they have to play in terms of adult smokers. However, where we definitely don’t have a difference of opinion with the legislators is when it comes to restricting their access to the youth.”
As a result, while waiting for the Bill to play out, VPASA launched its own youth access prevention campaign in March 2021, to institute self-regulation in the meantime. An important part of the campaign lies in training EVP retailers about the restriction of sales to young people. This also means combating the misinformation being distributed by anti-smoking lobbyists in terms of young users.
“It is alarming enough that anti-smoking lobbyists purposely draw false parallels between combustible cigarettes and vaping products,” said Gcoyi. “But even more concerning is the misinformation around vaping products and youth. It can completely obliterate what organisations such as ours are doing in trying to ensure adult access, while also restricting sales to youth.”
Among the misconceptions is that vaping acts as a “gateway leading under-age users to become smokers of combustible cigarettes. However, according to Public Health England’s latest 2021 report on vaping, which also incorporates research from UK-based Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), the use of vapes among 11 to 18-year-olds has remained low across the past few years.
Dr Delon Human, the chair and co-founder of the Africa Harm Reduction Alliance (AHRA), is a strong advocate for EVPs as a highly effective harm reduction tool for smokers. He once sat on the side of the anti-tobacco lobbyists and can comment on the “take-no-prisoners” approach that the movement tends to enforce, often at the cost of sound scientific evidence.
“When I was full-time in tobacco control, that was a tactic we used,” said Human. “We wanted to enforce regulation in three ways. First, you demonise the product. Second, you demonise the manufacturer. And third, you want to make sure the consumer is isolated. So it’s a political strategy that’s often used to get to the strictest type of regulation.
“The way to bridge that gap is to have all stakeholders take part in providing the scientific inputs needed to get to a point where you can say, ‘This is the true extent, for instance, of youth use’.”
What is needed instead, said Human, is an empathetic message. Gcoyi agreed: “Stigmatising vapour products in the same way as cigarettes serves no one. It denies smokers the right to make a better and well-educated choice for themselves.”
Read more about Vapour Products Association of South Africa here.